Low End Theory

Tapeheads


By Brendan I. Koerner

Okay, pop-quiz time: when's the last time you purchased an pre-recorded audio cassette? Unless you're a fan of obscure, import-only Afrobeat or Punjabi Bhangra, the answer is probably, "A long-ass time ago." Okay, so maybe a few of you are audiobook fans. But even those seem to be going digital nowadays, and I'd venture to guess that anyone frequenting this site is probably clued in to that trend. I mean, hey, Apple's pitching audiobook MP3s as one of the chief reasons to buy the video iPod.

But check out any low-end gadgets store, and what are you bound to find? Brand-new Sony Walkman that play tapes instead of those dastardly ATRAC files. Why a giant like Sony keeps on making these things is beyond me; if they can kill off the CLIE, why not kill off the Walkman brand's analog component? But, hey, if they were to do so, that'd be one less cheap item for Low End Theory to revel in. After the jump, a quick survey of how you can still enjoy your 8th grade mixtapes while on the go. PLUS: Low End Theory's readers spread wide for value.

The most surprising thing about cassette Walkmen like the WM-FX197 (pictured above) is that they're actually pretty expensive. The model I glimpsed in a Broadway storefront last weekend was marked at $28.99—a lot dearer than your typical jWin or Coby portable CD player. Yes, I realize that this is an economies-of-scale issue, because the number of tape listeners is dwarfed by the number of CD and MP3 devotees. But gouging the customer just a wee bit also seems to be a hallmark of Sony's Walkman brand—remember when the NW-HD1 debuted for $400?

What's most intriguing about the WM-FX197, in particular, is that it's being advertised as a new design. In other words, in the year 2005, several Sony engineers were tasked not with figuring out a way to further advance the digital music revolution, but rather a new method for cassette fans to enjoy that all-important "Mega Bass" feature. They also invested the product with a "large easy-to-read tuning scale," as well as that Low End Theory favorite, the molded plastic belt clip.

Despite all those technological advances, the WM-FX197 is but a dinosaur compared to the more expensive (by $10) WM-FX244. What I love about this player's spec sheet isn't the mention of "new design" or the "Automatic Volume Limiter System," but rather the reassurance that, yes, it can play metal tapes. This brings me straight back to 1983, when I used my allowance to purchase Rockwell's Somebody's Watching Me from the local Music Plus. Alas, the knock-off Walkman that my dad had bought me for Christmas didn't play metal tapes, which supposedly had better high-end response. Thanks to the hard-working engineers at Sony, today's third graders needn't suffer such indignities.

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The true rulers of the playground roost during the Reagan years, of course, were the kids who had those waterproof Walkmen—you know, the ones with yellow armor that weighed the same as a full-grown Italian Greyhound. The latest waterproof—or, rather, water resistant—Walkman cassette player, the WM-FS233, is a whole lot slimmer than its ancestor. Still, it's hard for me to imagine who the intended market is for this device. In 1983, it was the same executive-toy crowd that made the Sharper Image catalogue a hit. But are there really that many tape aficionados who also serious about "running in the rain and trekking through the mountains" (as the Sony Style web site quips)? And is it really advised to be rocking out to old mixtapes while ascending a mountain trail? Methinks you're better advised to enjoy Mother Nature's soundtrack, and keep your wits about you in case a cougar pounces.

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So, why does Sony not only keep making these things for legacy customers, but even goes so far as to come up with new designs on a semi-regular basis? I've seen stats declaring that less than one-tenth of one percent of music sales in the U.S. are on cassette; maybe the audiobook market is bigger than I expected, but aren't those primarily listened to in cars and at home? And, sure, cassettes are still probably widely available in developing markets, but even those have to be going digital—recent visitors to the far-flung corners of the globe can readily vouch for the fact that the planet's bazaars offer no shortage of optical media. So, dear readers, I beg of you—why is Sony sticking with cassettes? Do they actually make a healthy profit, or is it some crazy pride thing? Please advise.

SPREAD 'EM: I'll confess, I should've been clearer about the parameters of my value-spread challenge in last week's column. A lot of readers far wiser than I pointed out that, if you factor in things like eBay auctions, ringtones, and light bulbs on the low end, and train cars on the high, the whole exercise becomes a little ridiculous. Good point; I will say in my defense, however, that I tried to limit the concept to goods that you or I can buy at the local electronics store. Fat chance that Best Buy's gonna sell you some Hitachi rolling stock.

Still, lots of great ideas for potential VS champs. Given that this week's column is dedicated to Sony, we'll let a brilliant Connecticut reader offer the (almost) final word:

I don't know if Sony has a lot of value to me but they do have the Sony Qualia-004 Projector for a mere 27,000 and you can download Thug Motivation 101 by Young Jeezy (from Allen Iverson's mix tapes) for 99 cents off of connect

So glad I could finally work an A.I. reference into Gizmodo that didn't involve artificial intelligence.

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for both The New York Times and Slate. His Low End Theory column appears every Thursday on Gizmodo.

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